Parents Who Lie to Their Children Raise Children Who Lie to Them

"LIAR!" written backward on a window
Image by Satish Krishnamurthy / CC BY

“Do as I say, not as I do.”

It’s been shown countless times that children learn a lot by observing what those around them do and imitating that.

Even if those same examples caution them against performing the behaviors, actions speak louder than words. And they’re more likely to mimic what they see than to follow instructions that conflict with the actions of those cautioning them.

Thou Shalt Not Lie, Even Though I Am

One moral instruction that nearly everyone is given is to tell the truth. Lying is such a widely prevalent moral no-no that it even makes the Ten Commandments, a greatest hits of perceived sins.

As someone who grew up in a home with a strict Christian upbringing myself (yes, believe it or not), I was told many, many times to tell the truth by my parents.

This was a profoundly confusing instruction in my own case as I watched my mother repeatedly lie to others when it was convenient to do so. And who I also observed to be lying to me when it suited her own aims.

When I grew into my teenage years, she noted with great alarm that I was secretive and would even lie to her in order to get privacy. (She searched my room regularly and would punish me if she found writing that had anything in it that she didn’t like and also would destroy my work.)

Parents Who Lie to Their Children Raise Children Who Lie to Them

At the time, I did feel bad about lying to her. I loved her and didn’t want to do bad things. And I internalized the fact that I lied to her as a sign that I was a bad kid and deeply immoral.

But as it turns out, my reaction was predictable and it would have been stranger given the circumstances if I had not started to lie to her.

A recent study revealed that when parents used lies to keep their children in line, those kids were much more likely to lie to their parents as they grew up.

I suppose it’s not surprising and fits well in with the wide body of work on observational learning and social modeling (for an early foundational example, see Bandura’s 1961 study on aggression).

Something to think about anyway.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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